The Unbelievable Tea Parties

By Robert Wallace
America’s Right

Stephen Gordon has an interesting piece at The Next Right where he responds to a question he’s been hearing a lot these days:

Lately, I’m frequently asked by Republican campaigns, party executives, consultants and think-tank leaders how to better connect with Tea Party or libertarian voters.

Stephen’s advice is good. He tells the GOP that if they want the support of the Tea Party movement they need to walk the walk rather than simply talk the talk, and he outlines ways in which the GOP can reach out to socially moderate fiscal conservatives (“South Park Republicans”). I don’t have much to add on these points (I recommend reading Gordon’s article), but while I was reading another question occurred to me: Why are the GOP so reluctant to make any genuine overtures towards the Tea Party movement?

As Gordon writes (he’s quoting Viguerie from American Thinker):

[T]he Republican establishment disdains this populist uprising. Rather than embracing this genuine movement, establishment politicians and consultants are calculating how to co-opt, sideline, or even defeat the newest phenomenon in politics: tea partiers.

I agree: they GOPs predominant reaction to the Tea Party varies between pretending they don’t exist and trying to figure out how to co-opt the movement. Given the way the Tea Parties are capturing the essence of populist opposition to Obama and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party one has to ask: why has the GOP shown so little attempt at genuine cooperation with the Tea Parties?

The Cynical Explanation

Then there is a more sinister reason. If the GOP had not lost its way in recent years by moving away from small-government, libertarian ideals and towards big-government statism then there would be no Tea Party movement. Either Obama would have lost or – if he had won anyway – all the enthusiasm and activism that is currently being channelled into the Tea Parties would have been routed through the GOP instead.
At the center of the GOPs abandonment of limited government ideals is the same root cancer of progressivism: elitism. The beating heart of progressivism is the notion that there are those among us who are intellectually and morally superior to the masses. If only they could seize the reigns of government control, they could shape and mold society into a Utopia. This isn’t how progressivism is branded, but it’s the underlying assumption of a statist model of government. You only empower government to control everything from our birth rate to our thermostats if you implicitly believe government elites know better than we do how to run our own lives.
To a much lesser degree than the Democratic Party, the GOP has bought into this notion. Not for philosophical reasons, but for practical reasons. The more power a government office has, the more power the politician who holds that office has. It’s easy to see how even well-intentioned politicians would want to expand their power (thus government’s power) in order to achieve their well-intentioned agenda. This is why – as the Founders well knew – the unavoidable tendency of government is to expand at the expense of civil liberties unless ordinary civilians actively fought that expansion.
The Tea Parties are the 21st century realization of citizen opposition to government expansion. As such, its no wonder why the GOP has conflicted feelings about the Tea Party movement. If the Tea Party movement wins out then – unavoidably – the elites of the GOP will lose some of their power, and so it’s not in their personal best interest to support or ally with the Tea Parties.
So that’s reason #1 why the GOP leadership doesn’t like the Tea Parties: they feel threatened. They would be happy to have the votes, but they don’t want to loosen their grip on power. There is always the temptation to be mayor of Despair City rather than a fellow citizen of the shining city upon a hill.

The Practical Explanation

As much as I believe the cynical explanation is true I also know that it is not the whole story. The GOP is not completely ignoring the Tea Party movement. There are Republican officeholders who have stood up in recent weeks and months for the ideals of the Tea Party movement. Among these I count senators like Jim DeMint, John Thune and David Vitter, representatives like Mike Pence, John Shadegg and Michele Bachmann, and Republican governors like Rick Perry, Haley Barbour, and Bobby Jindal. Why aren’t the examples of these conservatives being more quickly copied by the rest of the GOP?
The answer is that the Tea Party goes against everything every politician knows about politics. Quite simply: they don’t believe what they are seeing. Given the history of American politics since the New Deal I can’t blame them.
FDR proved with the New Deal that doling out federal dollars at the local level was the quickest and surest route to political supremacy. He won four presidential elections because the American people went along with it, and ever since then the real question – John F. Kennedy notwithstanding – has been: “What can the federal government do for you?”. Overtime this became the central unquestioned axiom of politics in the United States, leading Thomas Frank to write a book in 2004 (What’s the Matter with Kansas?) because he was in disbelief that conservatives would violate this axiom by supporting candidates for reasons other than pecuniary self-interest. Outside the US the book was sold with the title “What’s the Matter with the United States?” showing that the assumption that people vote for whatever government will give them the best handouts was globally accepted.
Because the GOP bought into this assumption we say the rise of “compassionate conservatism”, which is another word for “big government conservatism”. They thought they had to keep the gravy train rolling along in order to stay in political power because that’s what 8 decades of American political experience seemed to indicate. That’s why the mantra of the GOP gradually shifted from “small government” to “lower taxes”. Originally lower taxes implied lower government spending, but these days lower taxes just means higher deficits. It worked for the GOP for a while because it sounded vaguely conservative, served the interests of party elites and seemed to be what the American people were asking for.
Then along comes the Tea Party and turns American political wisdom on its head. The Tea Parties were born as a reaction to the bailouts, and the basic message was: “Damn the bailouts and let us deal with the risk of economic collapse because we’d rather suffer through the rebuilding than drown our children in debt.” The Tea Party movement has expanded in scope since then, but the basic principle is the same: stop giving us handouts, get out of our way, and let us figure our own lives out.

This message simply does not compute for the Democratic Party, the MSM, or the GOP. The words are all in plain English, but they don’t make sense to these folks. The Tea Parties are incredible in the old-school sense of the world: they are unbelievable. When else in the history of the United States has a mass popular movement arisen that was asking the government not to give them something?

So you can see the reluctance of even principled GOPers to cast their lot with the Tea Party movement. They don’t know what to think. They are afraid that the Tea Party movement may be a flash in the pan. That it will sputter out next year and fail to give them support even if they do substantially buy into the principles of the Tea Party.
This fear is understandable. Cutting the size of government is the most politically difficult thing you can ask a person to do. Every agency, program, and budget exists for a reason. The original reason may be long-forgotten by now, but at a bare minimum the folks who work there will not take kindly to a downsizing, and this means that trimming government is roughly the political equivalent of dismantling road-side bombs.
So right now the GOP is frozen with indecision. On the one hand they could use the help from the Tea Parties, but on the other hand the Democrats seem to be imploding on their own. On the one hand they are afraid of 3rd party candidates, but on the other hand they are loath to share power with these upstarts.
The Way Forward
There are a lot of ways this can play out. The GOP may continue to only haphazardly interact with the Tea Party movement. In that case we’ll go into 2010 in disarray. The Tea Party and GOP will be divided against each other and internally, as factions within factions debate and bicker about whether alliances make sense or not. Depending on how poorly Obama and the Democrats do between now and 2010 the conservatives may manage to patch together some kind of victory then and in 2012 anyway. More likely, however, the divided house will fall.
Even if we do scrap incremental gains together for 2010 and 2012 it will not be enough to do the kinds of serious reform work that our country needs. Obama is not the first person to head our country towards the cliff edge. He’s just the most recent. It will take much, much more than a repudiation of Obama’s socialism-lite in 2012 to return our country to its roots.
The best way forward is mutual trust between the GOP and the Tea Party. The GOP needs to make substantial changes to reflect small-government principles, and the Tea Parties need to accept that reform will be a gradual and incremental process rather than a revolutionary one.
More than that, the Tea Parties need to keep up their level of activism to demonstrate staying power, and we need to work to reliably reward politicians who work with us and reliably oppose those who refuse to do so. We’re doing a good job, as we kicked Scozzafava out of NY-23 and polls show Rubio has caught up with Crist.
If the Tea Parties can keep this up, it’s my belief that the small-government wing of the GOP will be able to win out over the entrenched elites, and that together the Tea Party movement and a reformed GOP can bring about the real change this country needs: a return to limited government and the peace, freedom and prosperity that come with it.

Robert Wallace is classical liberal studying economics in graduate school. He and his wife work as business analysis consultants, and they live as undercover conservatives with their two small children in a socialist bastion of a college town. He has been writing for America’s Right since December 2008.



  1. Anonymous says:

    Very good article, with one caveat!

    Any alignment had better be viewed as a Tea Party victory and not a surrender. If examples are not made of the Republicans who violated our trust, and these Republicans are not shunned by the Tea Party and ousted from office, we will have become…. them.

  2. John Feeny says:

    Off topic, but an article that I think everyone should read. I'm honestly not sure how seriously this should be taken, but as we've seen with this administration, they're growing desperate. I don't rule out anything at this point. I just want us to make it to 2010 without any major incidents.

  3. Robert Wallace says:

    Anonymous at 11:45 -

    I share your frustration, but I'm not really that worried about making anyone pay.

    Anonymous who corrected like 6 of my mistakes in private submissions –

    No! You're not a pest! If I could reply back to comment submissions I would say "thanks" for every one. I really appreciate it when people read through my articles and send comments where I've made grammar or spelling errors.

  4. Anonymous says:


    You're welcome. I know it can be frustrating, thought.

    A second set of eyes never hurt!


    PS It was only four.

  5. Anonymous says:

    "I share your frustration, but I'm not really that worried about making anyone pay."

    In which event, we might as well put Bush back in and pass prescription care for toddlers and everyone, launch a few more wars, keep putting unfunded mandates on the states, and run up the debt.

    No. They need to pay! There are plenty who did not lose and are still in Congress waiting for Bush redux! If we don't run them out, we've lost. It's that easy.

  6. Boston Blackie says:

    We need to use either of these quotes from movies to let the GOP know we mean business, time to s*$t or get off the pot because we are
    "Mad as hell and we won't take it anymore"
    "We will not be ignored"

  7. Anonymous says:


    Fantastic piece. Every time I read one of your posts, I learn something — or at least learn a better way to put something. This time I do have a couple of thoughts.

    The beating heart of progressivism is the notion that there are those among us who are intellectually and morally superior to the masses.

    I think that, instead, it's the notion that those who are intellectually superior are necessarily also morally superior. Not at all guaranteed. In fact, in this society, finding those who are intellectual heavyweights and also moral heavyweights — or vice versa — is relatively difficult.

    If only they could seize the reins of government control,

    Oh, they have, they have. Try reaching high public office whether in Washington or in almost any state without a graduate degree, or at the very least a bachelor's degree. This country isn't France yet — in the sense that, in order to be groomed for political office, you must have a diploma from the specific school appropriate to that office — but give it 20 or 30 years, and it will be.


  8. John Feeny says:

    Nate -
    A great article. I enjoy reading your pieces, because you have a distinctive ability to break larger issues into smaller component parts that are readily understandable. Nice work.

    I realize that what I'm going to say will only seem to be stating the obvious, but perhaps if I refer to a part of one of Beck's programs it will help to make my point. Beyond the dynamics of what you explain, there is, at least it seems this way to me, one more very important piece of the puzzle – a leader around whom everyone can rally. About a month ago, during the last days of the NY-23 race, Beck used the examples of architechture – the image of an old, classic, slightly dilapidated building (one that represented a bygone time) and a modern, corporate super-fortress (which represented Obama). On paper, one could never seriously challenge the other.

    Beck felt, though, that in order for this country to turn on its heels and begin the slow process back to our origins that the leader who emerged – a real, serious conservative in the truest sense – would essentially have to be an ordinary person, someone like Hoffman. I realize that one of the more prominent questions being bandied about is who in the Republican Party can step up, but to me the real question is who is the near-complete unknown who will come from nowhere?

    Wishful thinking on my part, I know, but to me that is yet another piece of the final puzzle.

  9. Steve Rutledge says:

    Well said! Well thought out! If this is the most accurate description of the phenomenum, then is it logical to conclude that a galvanizing leader who can bridge the gap between successfully convincing the elites to embrace small less powerful government and convincing the Tea Parties to accept gradual incremental change is what is needed? That kind of leader is conspicuously missing at the moment.

  10. Anonymous says:

    For John Feeny's post @ 12:11pm.

    The apparent originator of this drivel is a guy by the name of Igor Panarin. Panarin is ex-KGB…and, as we know, no one is ever "ex." At present Panarin is a university lecturer, but clearly remains in contact with his old service. The organs of security were always involved in sowing distrust in foreign countries by stories such as these and many other means as well. These articles are an attempt to stimulate fears and perhaps actually spark an uprising. One million troops? From where? And if there were 1 million, how many would actually follow orders to attack their own countrymen?
    The danger from this kind of propaganda is that it may help to create an atmosphere in which Russian agents may be able to manipulate credulous groups or individuals into taking action against the government.

    Go to Igor Panarin in Wikipedia for bio, in addition to long KGB service, Comrade Panarin has recently been deeply involved in psychological warfare.

  11. suek says:

    You know…

    Extreme Left activists have infiltrated just about every politically active advocacy group that has begun within the last 50+ years. They take a group – feminists, for example – that have a particular goal, and through infiltration move into leadership positions, where they then divert the primary goal to something that is sort of like the original goal. Feminists wanted equal pay for equal work. Somehow that migrated into "we're equal to men" which then migrated into "we're the same as men" and at this point, it seems to be "we're better than men and what's more, we don't even need men".

    I have begun to wonder lately if they haven't infiltrated the Republican party, and managed to begin a migration towards a party that is apparently in opposition to the Democrats, but somehow accomplishes the same things. Much as I agreed with Bush on the Iraq war, I think that the "compassionate conservative" is nothing more than a hawkish on defense Democrat.

    If that's actually a possibility, then there's good reason for the GOP to be taken aback by the Tea Partiers…! It's a step back to their origins – and they don't want to go there.

  12. Anonymous says:

    It should be obvious to everyone by now that we have two problems. The worst is the Democrats,the lesser evil is the Republicans. There is such a fine line between them unless you are told which is which.

    I'm not giving either party a pass on their actions in the last year. Some are just worse than the others,but they all aren't listening to the American people in any significant manner.

    Obama can stroke them and bribe them,but at days end those elected officials are the ones voting in every piece of legislation facing this nation. They're the ones that turned a deaf ear to the entire country as we were all screaming "No Bailout" and they did it anyway. It wasn't just the Democrats,it was both parties.

    They both bury this nation in debt and then blame the other side–NO WAY JOSE! That BS doesn't float any longer. Then they give themselves a raise like they deserve it….FOR WHAT?

    There are a few "Good Guys" in Congress,but the majority need to be replaced with people that are there to represent America,not themselves or the special interest groups they work for…They sure aren't working for anyone I know.

    That's the problem in voting…the apathy… My guy is a "Good Guy" …SURPRISE! NO HE'S NOT…HE's JUST MAKING YOU THINK HE IS! Then he does as he pleases until he has to SNOW the voters again.

    Until the PEOPLE regain control of Congress,we will be in trouble.They are supposed to work for the American people…That isn't the case obviously.They all think they are untouchable…They have to be shown the truth…30% probably need to be prosecuted for things they've done.


  13. H. Ubris says:

    Republics don't work if the representatives ignore their constituents.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I will always be American
    never UN-american

  15. Anonymous says:

    If only we could limit Congress to those with just a G.E.D.

  16. USAJOBS says:

    Is that last photo the line for government jobs?

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